CBSSports.com Senior Writer

Rare starting freshman already sparkles for Badgers

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. -- Summer basketball tournament in Milwaukee, early July 2009. Josh Gasser, an accomplished but mostly unheralded point guard, saw Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan walk into the gym and initially thought one thing: Who's he here to watch?

Answer: Look in the mirror, kid.

Ryan had finally decided after months of urging from a former player to go and evaluate Gasser, an all-state performer who was, at the time, basically being recruited by Northern Iowa, Northwestern and a bunch of non-Big Ten schools. Nice options, all of them. But none of them measured up to Wisconsin, especially for a kid from Port Washington High in Wisconsin, which is about 100 miles from the campus in Madison. So Gasser quickly realized this was his opportunity to make an impression. He was the focus of Ryan's attention and if he played well, then maybe, just maybe, he could convince Ryan to return and follow him on the summer circuit. Then maybe, just maybe, he could play well enough the rest of July to lure a scholarship offer from the state university from which his oldest sister, Becky, had already graduated.

Bo Ryan starts a freshman, Josh Gasser, for only the third time since taking the helm at Wisconsin. (Getty Images)  
Bo Ryan starts a freshman, Josh Gasser, for only the third time since taking the helm at Wisconsin. (Getty Images)  
"But I sprained my ankle in the first half of that game," Gasser said. "I thought, 'Oh well. That's it.' "

Gasser thought that was it because that would've been it in most cases. This wasn't an ordinary sprain. It was so bad he couldn't play the rest of the summer, and how many high-major coaches would offer a scholarship to a prospect he's barely seen unless, of course, the prospect is a 6-foot-11 forward with abnormal athletic ability? Gasser is neither of those things. He's a 6-3 guard who will never dunk like Derrick Rose. Thus, he figured he was a 6-3 guard who would never get a chance to play at Wisconsin.

"But I'd already seen enough before he got hurt," Ryan recalled after Friday's 65-55 win over Boston College here at the Old Spice Classic. "He drove and dished to a guy for a layup, then hit a three, and then he drove again and got hammered, and that's when he sprained his ankle. So I only saw three possessions. But he did three things against some pretty good athletes, and I said, 'You know what? He can play.' I didn't need to see anything else."

And yet there was still an issue: Scholarship numbers.

Even though Ryan liked Gasser despite barely seeing him, despite the injury and despite the fact that 43 point guards from the Class of 2010 were ranked higher (according to Scout.com), the reality was that Wisconsin had no scholarships immediately available. A Division I school only gets 13, and all 13 were taken. The Badgers asked Gasser whether he'd walk on as a freshman if they promised to place him on scholarship as a sophomore, but that wasn't an appealing option for anybody, mom (Joan Gasser) and dad (Pat Gasser) included. So the family pretty much moved on mentally and forgot about Wisconsin, and Gasser just kept rehabbing that ankle. He had all but decided to sign with either Northwestern or Northern Iowa in the early period. Best case scenario, he figured, he might get to play against the Badgers someday.

And then Diamond Taylor got arrested and everything changed.

Seriously, this is how it happened.

Taylor was a freshman basketball player at Wisconsin doubling as a campus burglar. He was hit with a burglary charge last September and eventually pleaded guilty. That led to Ryan dismissing Taylor from the team, a development that freed the scholarship subsequently offered to (and accepted by) Gasser.

"We got the call probably 12 hours after [Taylor was arrested]," Joan Gasser said. "This poor kid, we felt horrible about what happened. But I told our son, I said, 'You know what? That situation we talked about, wanting something to open up for you. Here it is.' "

Which brings me back to Friday, when Pat and Joan Gasser sat in this 5,000-seat arena at Walt Disney World and watched their son start -- not just play, but start -- for the fourth time in his five-game college career. Gasser finished with eight points, six rebounds and two assists in Wisconsin's win over Boston College, and he's now averaging 11 points, six rebounds and three assists heading into Sunday's game against Notre Dame.

Also worth noting: Gasser is only the third freshman to start during Bo Ryan's 10 seasons at Wisconsin.

The other two were Devin Harris and Alando Tucker.

Pretty good company, right?

"We didn't expect this," Pat Gasser said with a smile.

"Not at all," Josh added, and at this point I think it's safe to assume nobody expected this. "I knew I'd have a chance to get in the rotation, but that's all I was trying to do, just get in the rotation, just come in and give us a couple of minutes here and there. But I started playing a little bit better, and then Coach gave me the opportunity, and I took advantage of it."

To his coach's delight.

"He's comfortable," Ryan said. "And he's fearless."

And now it's not a stretch to suggest Gasser could, barring injury, finish with more career starts than any Badger in history. That's true but still crazy considering he has, in a span of 14 months, transformed from a mostly unknown prospect headed to Northern Iowa or Northwestern to being just the second Wisconsin freshman to score at least 21 points in his college debut. What's even crazier is that it can all be attributed to three impressive possessions in a summer game witnessed by a Big Ten coach with a good eye. That wacky on-campus burglary that freed the scholarship probably deserves some credit, too.

"Everything happens for a reason," Gasser said, shaking his head. "I'm really happy with the situation. I guess it all worked out."


Gary Parrish is a senior college basketball columnist for CBSSports.com and frequent contributor to the CBS Sports Network. The Mississippi native also hosts the highest-rated sports talk radio show -- The Gary Parrish Show -- in the history of Memphis. He lives in that area with his wife, two children and a dog.
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